Less than one year ago, in the summer of 2015, two productions staged the tormented life of Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, the most extraordinary dancer of the early 20th century. The first show, which premiered at the Spoleto Festival in Italy on 8 July 2015, was a collaboration between Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and American stage director and playwright Robert Wilson. The production, titled Letter to a Man, was based on Nijinsky’s diary, which he wrote from January to March 1919, published for the first time in 1936. American author Henry Miller famously remarked of the diary that “[i]t is a communication so naked, so desperate, that it breaks the mold. We are face to face with reality, and it is almost unbearable…had he not gone to the asylum we would have had in Nijinsky a writer equal to the dancer.” Letter to a Man was a one-man show, in which Baryshnikov explored Nijinsky’s spiralling descent into insanity, due to the schizophrenia he was diagnosed with in 1929. The decision to make Baryshnikov the only protagonist of the show emphasised the link between him and Nijinsky since they are widely considered, together with Rudolf Nureyev, the greatest Russian ballet dancers of the 20th century.
The summer of 2015 also saw the première of Nijinsky’s Last Jump, first performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe on 7 August 2015. This year, Company Chordelia brought the production to the North Wall in Oxford. Although this performance is quite different from Letter to a Man, it shares with it a particular interest in the dancer’s diary. Part of the dialogues in the show are taken from Nijinsky’s writings, signalled by the sound of someone scribbling on a page. The show was an alternation between dialogues and dance pieces, which traced Nijinsky’s most famous interpretations. Nijinsky’s Last Jump is a two-man piece, with Darren Brownlie portraying young Nijinsky, and James Bryce the old dancer.
The performance is a powerful exploration of the relationship between Nijinsky and his inner self, and the latter’s artistic endeavours. These elements were all brought together in the setting, very carefully decorated to resemble a dressing room. The choice of a dressing-room setting seemed most appropriate to capture not only the performative artistry of the dancer, but also the personal oscillation between Nijinsky’s old and young self, and between the different impulses of his personality (a couple of well-planned dress changes gave the idea of the different stages in Nijinsky’s life, biographical and spiritual alike). The room divider in the foreground resembled a privacy screen, and was later used for the scenes in which Nijinsky is interned into a mental institution.
The performance was extremely well-researched in all its aspects. Director Kally Lloyd-Jones managed to create a piece that was not only extremely accurate from a historical and biographical point of view (particularly contemporaneous ballet styles), but also tragic, mesmerising, and incredibly touching. It opened with old Nijinsky recalling the time when his father taught him how to swim by throwing him into the water. He recalls experiencing moments of sheer panic, before realising that he could save himself from drowning by jumping up towards the surface. This was linked to his later career, becoming world-famous for his extremely powerful and almost gravity-defying jumps, something that cropped up time and again in the play. Bryce spoke while Carl Maria von Weber’s music used for Le Spectre de La Rose played in the background, the ballet that consecrated the dancer’s jumps to world fame. However, the liveliness of the music contrasted with the stillness of Bryce, creating from the very beginning a sense of tension, of opposition, which persisted throughout the performance. To start by having old Nijinsky tell one of his early memories to the music of Le Spectre de La Rose was particularly appropriate also because the ballet itself is about memory (it tells the story of a girl who, in a dream, dances with the souvenir rose from her first ball).
This emphasis on personal feeling permeated the dialogues between the two actors. The first few scenes were a way to map out Nijinsky’s creative process. Old Nijinsky insisted that dance should be “no sentiment, just ideas”, but also that “God is beauty with feeling”, thus signalling a use of the word ‘feeling’ as an intensification of ‘sentiment’, a blend between something intellectual (ideas) and something more profoundly rooted. The performance as a whole seemed to try and capture this synthesis, wishing to portray Nijinsky’s tragedy without ever slipping into sentimentalism. This was masterfully conveyed by Michael Daviot’s text: compelling and vivid, it employs an aphoristic style that made many words deeply resonate within me, providing memorable lines such as the ones quoted above.
Nijinsky’s most famous interpretations were used as steps to follow the development of the dancer’s mental disorder. When Brownlie danced with a puppet of Petrushka, the performance was quite violent, with Nijinsky fighting against the puppet, as if it were trying to take possession of him, in a mixture of love and hatred that made the choreography almost disturbing. The most powerful and dramatic moment was when Brownlie danced the choreography from The Rite of Spring in a straitjacket, which was the peak of Brownlie’s performance, really showcasing his technical aptitude for the role (he originally trained as a dancer at the Dance School of Scotland). The performance was haunting and excruciating, recalling not only the original choreography of the show, created by Nijinsky himself, but also the dancer’s internment in institutions. This scene encapsulated the sense of a line Brownlie says in a conversation with his older self: “Did we jump into madness?”. This sentence epitomises Nijinsky’s tragic life. At the beginning of the play, Bryce says that you just have to jump “and then pause a little up there.” The play captures how Nijinsky stood “up there” for too little time, slowly spiralling into a mental disorder that cut his career too short.
Lloyd-Jones managed to depict Nijinsky’s tragic life by showing both his fragility and his greatness. The combination of stunning aesthetics and profound emotion is what made this production so compellingly communicated.